Linda Austin

Where are they now: RJI fellow teaching journalists one text at a time

Linda Austin, former RJI Fellow, has created microlearning courses for journalists and the public

I spoke with journalism educator Linda Austin about how her 2017-18 Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Fellowship led to her building text-based microlearning courses for journalists and communities at organizations such as Report for America and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Tell me a little about your RJI Fellowship. What was the project?

The purpose of my fellowship was to try to figure out whether mobile microlearning could be part of the answer to the perennial problem in journalism, that is, journalists don’t have the time or money to take training. Even an hour long webinar can be a massive time commitment for somebody who’s struggling to get that five-story-a-week quota met.

We first researched what the training needs were that journalists identified. We did a survey of around 710 journalists to figure that out. And then we worked to figure out what the best practices were in mobile microlearning based on both talking to experts in the field and conducting a literature-research project with the Information Experience Lab. And based on that, we moved to creating a mobile-microlearning course called The 5 C’s of Writing News for Mobile Audiences.

Then, we figured out whether the course was effective or not. We found yes, it was effective, and people who took it said they would recommend it to other journalists. Of those who took it, 80% saw their scores increase in a statistically significant way. And then, the course was picked up by the EdApp, and UNITAR, which is the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. It’s now available for free globally on the EdApp.

How did your project lead to the creation of the new texting courses?

The basic principles behind mobile microlearning are the same, whether it’s app-based or text-message-based. You’re trying to break down the components of what you want people to know into very small, bite-sized chunks. It’s just delivering those bite-sized chunks via text. By doing this, you are helping journalists take advantage of little pockets of time where they could do a five-minute lesson. Maybe they’re on the bus going to work, or they’re standing in line at Starbucks. In that time, how can we give them a little tidbit of learning? It’s really the same concept, just a slightly different delivery platform. It’s still coming in on your phone.

Sample question 1

Tell me about the Report for America course?

I started talking with Report for America about how they could do a better job of instructing their annual incoming cohort of journalists in the basics in their handbook. Their handbook is 50 pages, and it goes from — how do I get health insurance to substantive ethical issues in journalism. So it’s a lot of material. 

Report for America Day 3

The challenge was, how can we present this in a way that would be digestible, effective, and get them all up to speed on everything they needed to know before they went off to their respective newsrooms? The course is 19 lessons, one a day, and it is based on different aspects of the handbook that we really wanted to emphasize to them and make sure that they understood. That way, if they had questions about the lessons, they had the time to get them answered ahead of time, rather than when they’re facing an ethical dilemma in the field.

Day 3 — Where can you find public records?

How was it different for the Solutions Journalism Network course?

The Solutions Journalism Network course was an effort to engage new audiences by the members of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative. They wanted to try something different to try to connect with audiences. They knew there was a need and potentially an interest in knowing more about how to access local public records among members of the community. The Public Records Are Power course is public-facing. You can sign up by going to the website and entering your phone number.

Now for today's only Q.

It’s only seven days. It’s the nuts-and-bolts of what’s a public record. And this is based on local public records in Cleveland. It’s very specific to the particular audience it was created for: everything from how do you write a public records request to what to do if you’re denied.

Do you feel like this could be applied to anything? What is the next step? Is there something you really want to teach journalists through this method?

I think that really the sky’s the limit. It works well for knowledge retention and behavior change. It would work for a variety of subjects for journalists to learn more about the craft. I just hope that people can open their minds to the possibility that there are new ways to learn. Not everything needs to have a teacher standing in front of class or a teacher getting on Zoom and talking at you.

The most effective way to learn something is when you have to actually apply the skills to a situation. And you can do that with mobile microlearning through the questions that you ask. And then you can provide generalized feedback back to the learner.

I do think it fits a niche. It’s not going to teach you everything, I wouldn’t try to learn JavaScript on text messages. But there’s plenty of topics, I think it’s got great applicability. And it’s relatively inexpensive compared to one-on-one in-person training. It’s cost-effective, and you can communicate a lot of information relatively effectively.

Do you have a favorite program or tool you use to build these courses?

When I was doing my fellowship, this text-message company had not yet launched. Arist is a text-message learning platform that was founded in late 2018.

So what’s next for you and these training courses?

I’m actually thinking more about how I can get back out on the road traveling and doing training in person. That doesn’t mean that I won’t do text-message courses. I think there’s a good way to combine the two, where you do some in-person training, and then you have follow-up that requires attendees to apply some of the skills they’ve learned from the in-person training. Or it could be a pre-training option, in which you set the stage for the training and they develop some basic skills. Then, the training is more advanced in person. So, I do think there’s a good way to hybridize the two together. and that may be what’s next.

If people want to start their own text-based course endeavour, what is your advice for them?

Talk to me, that would be my advice. There’s a lot to consider and think about before you get started. Whether you want to take it all on yourself or with a team, there are some best practices that you have to get grounded in first before you try to do it. Email me. Let’s chat.

Anything else you want to share about these courses or what you have coming up?

Just a big thank you to RJI. I never would have gone down this path if I had not had the fellowship and the encouragement. I think the outstanding element about the RJI Fellowship is that it’s not just that you hand people the money and run. There was so much ongoing support. It was nice dealing with people who were competent, helpful, encouraging, supportive — the kind of environment you’d like to have in every newsroom. So thank you, thank you. I’m grateful.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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